Surprising trends in air travel

I’d first like to correct one point from an earlier post on Chinese airline travel. I suggested that Michael Pettis believed the Chinese government was somehow faking the GDP growth data, which is not accurate. Pettis did not question the fact that Chinese statisticians were measuring some sort of economic activity, rather he argued that a substantial portion of this activity had little economic value, due to misallocation of resources. He views reported GDP growth as more of an input into the system, which may or may not be effective at producing useful output.

Tim Peach sent me an interesting article on international air travel:

This is one of those dynamic (moving) graphs that I find kind of mesmerizing. (Like those moving graphs of world history over the past 5000 years.) The top 8 countries were not that surprising; the European big four plus the US, China, Russia and Canada. But where is Japan? The ninth country is South Korea, followed by lowly Ukraine. Sweden makes the list with fewer than 10 million people, while Japan has 126 million. Even worse, airlines are basically the only way for the Japanese to visit other countries, whereas Europeans can travel internationally by train or car.

I hit replay, and tried to take a quick screenshot:

Now Japan’s well up the list at number 7. But no South Korea. Even today, Japan is slightly richer than South Korea, and 2.5 times as populous. Does anyone know what’s going on with Japan?

Perhaps the Japanese did some travel in the boom years, and then decided there was no point in leaving home. When I visited Japan last year I noticed that the people were extremely polite, and things like trains and subways tended to work perfectly. To the Japanese, the rest of the world must seem barbaric. Or perhaps the Japanese worry that their limited skills in speaking English will be a drawback.

Any thoughts?

PS. In the early 1400s, the Chinese sent a huge armada under Admiral Zheng He across the India Ocean, and then decided the rest of the world had nothing of interest. They stopped exploring.

PPS. I presume the UK figures are inflated by London being a stopover point to Europe. And the hub and spoke system might inflate some of the other European countries as well. But five years ago, I flew to Singapore via Tokyo, so even the Japanese figures are a bit inflated. Also note that Japan has recently seen a huge boom in inbound tourism.


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31 Responses to “Surprising trends in air travel”

  1. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    24. June 2019 at 09:54

    It’s more that Zheng He’s expedition was associated with a political faction in China that lost out in a political struggle, and the winners canceled it. It was also basically a very expensive prestige project (Charles Mann compared it to the Apollo Moon Landings in 1493).

  2. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    24. June 2019 at 10:57

    Japanese were known for being insular even during the boom years:

    “Despite Japan’s boom in international travel, the proportion of its people who go abroad is lower than that in any other industrialized country—roughly five percent a year in recent years, versus 45 percent for England and 15 percent for even the famously parochial United States. (Also, most Japanese travel is in tightly organized and highly insulated groups, not exactly the ideal means for deep exposure to foreign societies.) Our Japanese neighbors often ask, in all innocence, whether prices here are higher or lower than those in the United States. We usually don’t have the heart to give them a frank reply.”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1989/05/containing-japan/376337/

  3. Gravatar of John John
    24. June 2019 at 11:50

    Numbers count departures from country of residence so there shouldn’t be hub inflation.

    Could it be that a large portion of the numbers represent students studying abroad and that combined with Japan’s lack of foreign language education and shrinking student-age population, Japanese students aren’t studying abroad as much as others? It’s surprisingly hard to find a Japanese student at a US university.

  4. Gravatar of Derrick Derrick
    24. June 2019 at 12:01

    In an alternate universe, the Japanese are like the Krikkiters from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. WWII was Japan coming out of its shell, looking at the rest of the world and saying, “it’ll have to go”.

    There is something beguiling about a nation that develops its own country to well so as not not need to travel to others, who they deem barbaric. Also, Japan is just fucking weird and there is enough to keep themselves entertained it seems.

  5. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    24. June 2019 at 15:38

    A great visual on the reality of Chinese economic growth.

  6. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. June 2019 at 17:48

    Robert Kaplan, the internationalist right-winger, recently penned that he could travel around China by airplane much more comfortably than he could in the United States. And he noted that travel experience does not even count in the excellent bullet trains.

    The Far East cultures, with their close relationship between government and industry (Kagan says they are indistinguishable inside China) are eclipsing the United States.

    Next to Japanese cities, US cities look like crap-holes. Even in Thailand, there is no festering sore on the economic landscape like Detroit. That is true, why would a Japanese person want to see the US other than perhaps the Grand Canyon?

    Singapore, perhaps the most dirigiste economy on the planet, has per capita incomes (PPP) 50% higher than that of the US.

    Yet it is not likely the US can adopt Asian systems successfully.

    My guess is that life will be materially better (for the bulk of populations) in the Far East and even Southeast Asia in coming decades than it will be in the US.

  7. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    24. June 2019 at 20:52

    Ben – stop with the Singapore thing. It makes you look like an idiot, which you are not.

    Actually I don’t see much difference between Japanese cities and US cities in terms of general aesthetics. Japanese cities seem to me (Kyoto excepted) to be mostly low rise, functional style houses, often quite ugly, built in the 70’s and 80″s. US suburbs tend to look a lot more prosperous, although often US small town downtowns look abandoned compared to Japanese ones. Of course there are some pretty nice public buildings in Tokyo and Osaka, but then the NY sky is still the most spectacular in my view in the world.

    I think the reason the Japanese don’t travel as much internationally was due to the historical distance to any developed country. China, Korea and Taiwan for instance have only recently become developed countries. Contrast this with UK, there are probably 20 foreign countries of a fairly high development level within a couple of hours flight.

    So it is fairly surprising that the Chinese travel so much internationally. Could it be mostly to Taiwan and Korea ?

  8. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    25. June 2019 at 02:32

    “Perhaps the Japanese did some travel in the boom years, and then decided there was no point in leaving home.”

    In 1989 during the bubble period, there were 9.6 million Japanese visits abroad and in 2018 there were 18.0 million Japanese visits abroad, about the same as in 2000. This ignores repeat travlers but that is 14% of the population versus 17% for the wealthier U.S.

    https://www.tourism.jp/en/tourism-database/stats/outbound/

  9. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    25. June 2019 at 02:42

    In 2010, the New York Times had a front page feature story on the “decline of Japan” written by the Tokyo bureau chief. The article had several errors but the funniest were:

    * “Japanese consumers, who once flew by the planeload on flashy shopping trips to Manhattan and Paris, stay home more often now, saving their money for an uncertain future or setting new trends in frugality with discount brands like Uniqlo.”

    (There were twice as many Japanese who traveled abroad in 2010 than during the bubble years of the late 1980s.)

    * “China has so thoroughly eclipsed Japan that few American intellectuals seem to bother with Japan now, and once crowded Japanese-language classes at American universities have emptied.”

    (There were a record number of American university students studying Japanese in 2010, 5% more than those studying Mandarin then.)

  10. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    25. June 2019 at 03:13

    The moving graph shows a big increase in South Koreans traveling abroad in the past few years. South Korea briefly entered the top ten in 2005, fell out in 2009, then reentered in 2015 with 19,000,000 and reached 26,500,000 in 2017, a 40% jump. Since 2013, the number of Koreans visiting Japan has increased three-fold but slowed to just a 5% increase last year.

  11. Gravatar of marcus nunes marcus nunes
    25. June 2019 at 03:16

    In the early 1400s, the Chinese sent a huge armada under Admiral Zheng He across the India Ocean, and then decided the rest of the world had nothing of interest. They stopped exploring.
    No, at that time, Chinese vessels were 30 larger than Columbus´ships 100 years later. The Ming emperor, afraid of losing control, forbade the construction of ships with more than one sail. Sailing became only coastal and inland. China remained closed from then on…

  12. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. June 2019 at 03:44

    1. The data is on international travel NOT international AIR travel

    2. People in newly enriched countries who have never had a chance to travel overseas before are keen to try it. In 7 or 8 years, you’ll see Vietnam rising rapidly on the list.

    3. Most developed countries have seen travel growth (adjusted for population) growing at 1 to 2% per annum. Japan is at the low end of that trend but in the same ballpark.

    4. It’s hard to go anywhere from Japan except by air.

    5. Winter’s are mild in Japan.

    6. In their 20s, twice as many Japanese women as men travel abroad. In their 40s men travel overseas twice as much as women.

    7. Inbound tourism to Japan is growing at 20% per annum (10 times as fast as China.)

    8. As Benjamin Cole pointed out, most Japanese travel abroad to remind themselves how glad they are they don’t live in a “festering sore of a craphole.”

    9. Singapore is the most boring place on the planet.

  13. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. June 2019 at 03:53

    Also over half of Chinese outbound international travel is actually domestic (Hong Kong and Taiwan)

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    25. June 2019 at 04:19

    Chris A.

    Maybe the life of the village idiot is for me.

    BTW, this is from far-right-winger Arnold Kling’s blog:

    “Ts’ang Chung-shu and Jennifer Dodgson write,

    ‘Under such a (state-controlled system, a leader is the individual who can render the greatest number of people dependent upon the advantages that he can provide, and threats to his power come not from rival offers of protection, but from redistribution networks that escape his control. Thus, the defining quality of statehood is not the monopoly of legitimate violence, but the monopoly of legitimate benevolence.’

    They claim that this explains how Singapore and China differ from Western governments.

    The Western perspective on this comes from North, Weingast, and Wallis. To hold onto power, a government must be able to keep violent competitors at bay. The authors claim that it works differently in the Chinese tradition.”

    —30—

    Hey, they said it, not me. I am just the village idiot. But I read stuff.

    Here is the view of a Singapore economist published in the peer-reviewed Singapore Economic Review:

    “Compared with other dynamic Asian economies, the Singapore government’s approach to intervene in the economy is both more extensive and more intrusive, but with a narrow focus on GDP growth and surplus accumulation as the primary objectives….”

    https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2876&context=soe_research

    https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/4741/1/MPRA_paper_4741.pdf

    Like I said, I read stuff. China and Singapore, in many regards, are “pro-business.” That is not the same as being for free markets. If your business can align itself with government, everything will be rosy!

    Singapore has obtained very high incomes and also has a state policy of running trade surpluses.

    BTW, Chinese travelers love Thailand.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. June 2019 at 09:21

    Ben, Your comments have moved past weird into borderline insane. What are you trying to do?

    Todd, You said:

    “This ignores repeat travelers but that is 14% of the population versus 17% for the wealthier U.S.”

    That’s not consistent with the numbers in my chart. Where’d you get your US figures?

    Marcus, Not sure that’s inconsistent with what I said. Is 30 times bigger a contradiction of “huge”.

    dtoh, Thanks for correcting me on the international travel, I missed that. The Japan/S. Korea gap still seems mysterious.

    Agree that inbound tourism to Japan is surging, which makes the data even weirder.

    And glad you agree that Taiwan is a part of China, as I get lots of pushback when I make that claim here. Now I have an ally.

    I’d say the Chinese travel growth is pretty spectacular, regardless of how it’s measured.

  16. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    25. June 2019 at 11:29

    dtoh wins the comments again for realizing that Scott’s link is not just about air travel but about all travel.

    I think we need outbound trips per person per year to really make comparisons between different countries. I do not find any reliable data on this though. The numbers vary considerably, depending on the source.

    Regarding outbound trips per person per year, I think Japan is not so far behind other countries. Germany is full of Japanese tourists with cameras. That must count for something.

    However, if Japan is really far behind, I would say:

    1) It’s a pretty isolated island, you cannot cross borders by car, you really need to travel by air.

    2) It’s a cultural thing. The rest of the world is just really dirty compared to Japan. See also: Paris syndrome. Very funny.

    3) Probably Japan has relatively few migrant workers compared to other first world countries. Much travel in other countries is probably caused by migrant workers who want to visit their home countries.

    4) Japanese companies are focused on Japan, they love to export, yes, but they seem to want to keep as many parts of their companies as possible in Japan. That leads to less business travel.

    5) Japan is a lovely country. Japanese love to travel and make many trips per year, but mostly in their own country.

    6) The working population has very little vacation compared to European countries. That makes traveling abroad difficult.

    If Japanese travel, then briefly: Heidelberg, Rothenburg, Munich, Neuschwanstein, Danube, Vienna, Paris, yes, but in 3-5 days. And every ten years one trip abroad at most, everything else dishonors the company, before that happens, they return their vacation time unused.

  17. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. June 2019 at 11:46

    Scott,
    The Taiwan comment was tongue in cheek, but I think you know that.

  18. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. June 2019 at 11:48

    Scott,
    Also re Japan/Korea dichotomy…it’s pretty simple….. Seoul is cold in the winter and boring the rest of the year.

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. June 2019 at 13:27

    Christian, You said:

    “dtoh wins the comments again for realizing that Scott’s link is not just about air travel but about all travel.”

    He may win the internet today (as my assumption was wrong), but you certainly won’t. It most certainly does not include all travel. Business travel is excluded. Much “international” tourism is also excluded, as the data relies heavily on things like departure cards at the border. Land travel within the Eurozone typically doesn’t even register with official documents.

    It’s mostly air travel by tourists, but not exclusively. It measures departures for tourists going on holiday.

    dtoh, Almost nothing is that simple. But those are plausible factors.

  20. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    25. June 2019 at 15:57

    My comments may be unconventional, but they are not insane.

    I will concede that it is a far better accommodation to life to choose the conventional.

    So maybe I am crazy.

  21. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    25. June 2019 at 17:46

    Scott,

    Business travel is excluded.

    That might be hard to distinguish in reality, but okay.

    Much “international” tourism is also excluded, as the data relies heavily on things like departure cards at the border. Land travel within the Eurozone typically doesn’t even register with official documents.

    Let’s assume you are right, but that would make the German numbers even more extreme.

  22. Gravatar of Dtoh Dtoh
    25. June 2019 at 21:47

    I don’t know about the other countries, but the numbers for JAPAN are definitely all visit abroad by Japanese citizens not just tourism.

  23. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    25. June 2019 at 21:56

    Me: “This ignores repeat travelers but that is 14% of the population versus 17% for the wealthier U.S.”

    Scott: “That’s not consistent with the numbers in my chart. Where’d you get your US figures?”

    What is inconsistent? I just googled how many Americans went abroad. Japanese going abroad are 99.9% by plane.

    All of the Japanese don’t go abroad because _________ are funny.

  24. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. June 2019 at 04:05

    Scott,

    I don’t really understand how you know that it does not include all travel. That business travel is excluded. That much “international” tourism is also excluded. That land travel within the EU is excluded. That the data relies on departure cards at the border. It all sounds like pure assumptions to me.

    It may as well be a survey, for example at the destinations, they ask where the people are from, and then they extrapolate. Or they simple use data from certain airports and airlines, and then they extrapolate again. I doubt that they used departure cards, like you said, they don’t even exist in the EU. And China looks like pure extrapolation to me.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. June 2019 at 11:21

    dtoh, They said they got the data from the World Bank. So I checked their site and found they excluded business travel. And the numbers were exactly identical for the countries I checked, so that is in fact where the data came from.

    Todd, You said:

    “What is inconsistent? I just googled how many Americans went abroad.”

    So no American ever traveled twice in one year. Apples and oranges.

    Christian, You asked:

    “I don’t really understand how you know that it does not include all travel. That business travel is excluded. That much “international” tourism is also excluded. That land travel within the EU is excluded. That the data relies on departure cards at the border. It all sounds like pure assumptions to me.”

    Maybe by following the links to the sources cited. Ever tried that? Thousands of people commute across the border every day to work in Switzerland. Do you serious think they consider that “International Travel”.

  26. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    26. June 2019 at 13:07

    Scott,
    I would check your sources’ sources, i.e. where did the World Bank get their numbers. The numbers in the report exactly (to the last digit) match the numbers from the U.S. Commerce Department National Trade and Tourism Office (NTTO). The NTTO data is for ALL international travel (not just tourism) for U.S. residents.

    For those interested, 56% of US foreign travel was tourism, and the average number of annual foreign trips by US foreign travelers was 2.5.

    Also as I mentioned, I checked the sources for the numbers for Japan as well. Those numbers were also all travel not just tourism.

  27. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. June 2019 at 14:16

    Scott,

    Thank you for your explanations. I really appreciate it.

    Thousands of people commute across the border every day to work in Switzerland. Do you serious think they consider that “International Travel”.

    No. Commuting is not travel, obviously.

    Maybe by following the links to the sources cited. Ever tried that?

    Sorry, I didn’t do it, because it didn’t see it. It’s so tiny, and I’m blind anyway. But now I saw it, thanks to you, and funnily enough, I was right about travel, about tourism, about arrival data, and about the surveys. The source is WTO:

    A visitor is a traveller taking a trip to a destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any purpose ( business, leisure or other personal purpose ) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited.

    Travel refers to the activities of travellers. A traveller is someone who moves between different geographic locations, for any purpose and any duration. The visitor is a particular type of traveller and consequently tourism is a subset of travel.

    Outbound tourism comprises the activities of a resident visitor outside the country of reference, either as an outbound tourism trip or as part of a domestic tourism trip.

    WTO estimates data for countries’ outbound tourism flows on the basis of data supplied by each of the destination countries and therefore corresponds to arrivals in these countries (and not to Departures data provided by the country of reference).

    Data are obtained from different sources : administrative records ( immigration, traffic counts, and other possible types of controls ), border surveys or a mix of them. If data are obtained from accommodation surveys, the number of guests is used as estimate of arrival figures.

    Skift writes about “International Travel Departures by Country”.

    So I simply assume they know the difference between travel and tourism.

    I didn’t know the difference so far but my assumption was right: Travel is not just tourism.

    I can’t compare Skift data with WTO data so far, because the WTO data excel sheets seem to cost money. But dtoh seems to be able to compare the data, so I trust him on this one again.

    Thank you very much.

  28. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    27. June 2019 at 07:18

    Scott, you wrote:

    “So no American ever traveled twice in one year. Apples and oranges.”

    I guess I used your data: 57 million/327 million = 17%, as I wrote above. For Japan, it is now 14%, very similar but Japan’s GDP per capita is 70% that of the U.S.

  29. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    27. June 2019 at 07:22

    Oops. I accidentally used 1999 so in 2017, 27% for America v. 14% for Japan.

    In 1999, it was 17% for America and 13% for Japan.

  30. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    27. June 2019 at 10:03

    fact, Jalpak tour sales are declined. Some abroad travel tour company don’t go well.(See any IRs in TSE)

    Neat,attractive places are very far from Japan.(some place of US and EU?) .(and living people are yes, barbaristic!).Sorry.

  31. Gravatar of LC LC
    28. June 2019 at 23:15

    Glad I saw this. Confirms what I am seeing in EU now. Bus loads of Koreans, Chinese and Americans. Few elderly or middle aged Japanese. I was wondering if my first impression was correct.

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